Israelis Are Among the Happiest People in the World... No Joke!
Here's something that you probably don’t know about Israel: Israelis are very happy. In fact, they are among the happiest people in the world – far happier than Americans, and a bit happier than Canadians. When compared to the citizens of the richest and most developed nations of the world, Israelis come out near the top of the happiness index. They feel really good about themselves and their lives.
I admit that this came as somewhat of a surprise to me. Having studied Israel for 50 years and visited more than 60 times, I like to think I know Israel pretty well. But the truth is that if asked if Israelis are happy, I probably would have said “not very.”
Like everyone else, I am influenced by the drumbeat of bad news that we read every day about the dangers that Israel faces from within and without, and the chaos that reigns in Israel’s neighborhood. An abbreviated list would include the following: tension with the Palestinians, an uncaring and coercive religious establishment, contentious Israeli politics, an Iranian bomb, the extremism of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian civil war, and troubled relations between Israel and the United States.
Each and every one of these items generates news stories on a regular basis, and so we immediately assume that the average Israeli could not possibly be happy living in a country confronting so many apparent crises, problems, and threats.
But we would be wrong.
In Israel, as in the United States, news stories do not reflect day-to-day reality. Though they may be helpful in understanding the larger geopolitical picture, they tell us little about how people go about their daily lives.
And the fact is this: In one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world, Israel has brought into being a society where people live happy, fulfilling lives, are content with their environment, and feel good about their prospects. One might reasonably argue that in her 67 years of existence, this is Israel’s most significant accomplishment.
Yes, we are proud of Israel’s technological accomplishments, Nobel prizes, and military prowess, but most important of all is that she has succeeded in providing a satisfying life to her eight million citizens. After all, Zionism came into being precisely for this purpose: to provide a good life to an oppressed people that had experienced endless misery in its wanderings throughout history. That is what the Jewish state has done, for her Jewish citizens and non-Jewish citizens alike.
The evidence for Israeli contentedness comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is made up of 34 mostly advanced countries. The OECD produces a Better Life Index, which measures quality of life across countries by using sophisticated data of various types, including in-depth surveys. One of the categories of measurement is “life satisfaction” – that is, happiness.
In the latest index, which surveyed 36 countries, Israel ranked fifth out of 36 in life satisfaction. On a scale of 10, Israeli happiness was rated at 7.4. This is the same number as Norway and Finland, despite the obvious fact that Norway and Finland do not face regular missile attacks and do not have a military draft or a substantial defense budget. Canada ranked 9th, with a rating of 7.3, and the U.S. ranked 12th with a happiness rating of 7.2.
Another myth about Israel is that due to the pressures of life there, Israelis leave in droves for other places, such as the United States and Germany – but this too is untrue. OECD figures show that Israel has one of the lowest emigration rates among advanced countries. In fact, Israel’s emigration rate is less than one emigrant per 1,000 citizens, and is currently at an all-time low.
None of this means, of course, that Israel does not have real problems to deal with. Her security must be assured, religious freedom must be provided to all, the Iranian threat must be dealt with, peace must be advanced with the Palestinians, and relations with the United States must be improved. Israelis have much to do in the years ahead, and they will continue to require the support of Jews around the world.
But as Israelis struggle with their problems, those of us in North America should set aside our misperceptions about who they really are and how they feel. Now we know: Israelis love their country, plan to stay there, and find a degree of happiness that exceeds what we experience. In some respects, despite their problems, it is not Israelis who should be envying us. It is we who should be envying them.
Rabbi Yoffie will be one of the featured speakers at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at urj.org/biennial.